Steven Stayner's Kidnapping, Cary Stayner's Horrific Crimes and One Family's Unbelievable Story

The new Hulu docuseries Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story takes an intimate look at this tragic, terrifying and touching saga about a family that experienced the unthinkable—twice.

By Natalie Finn Apr 21, 2022 2:00 PMTags
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When 14-year-old Steven Stayner turned up at a police station, more than seven years after he was kidnapped while walking home from school, it felt like a miracle.

"This is really so phenomenal, for a child to be gone seven years and to be found alive," the boy's mother, Kay Stayner, told the reporters who flocked to Merced, Calif., on March 2, 1980, to cover the joyous, unlikely conclusion to the family's ordeal. But as Kay also said that night, "We expected him to come back. We had hope, faith and kept busy."

Added Steven's father, Del Stayner, "I never stopped looking, every time I saw a crowd on TV or a picture of a lot of people in a magazine. I always looked very closely in hopes of spotting Steven."

The parents of five, who had kept all the presents their son never got to open after going missing a few weeks before Christmas in 1972, ultimately got their wish thanks to Steven's bravery.

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The teen, by then 5-foot-10 and barely resembling the little boy who disappeared, had decided he had to escape in order to save his abductor's latest victim, 5-year-old Timothy White, who was taken not far from his elementary school in Ukiah, Calif.—about 200 miles away from Merced—on Feb. 14, 1980.

"I brought in Timmy because I didn't like what was happening," Steven explained to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a variation of what he told police and reporters for a long time afterward. "It happened to me, and I didn't want to see it happen to anybody else."


And so Steven made it home, Timmy was returned to his parents, and two families could breathe again. But for the Stayners, this seemingly closed hellish chapter of their lives turned out to be only the first of the worst-nightmare scenarios that they faced.

"It's a lot to imagine that any one family could undergo," Jessica Dimmock, director of the three-part docuseries Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story, now streaming on Hulu, told E! News.

Featuring interviews with family members, some of whom are speaking in depth for the first time, the show delves into the aftermath of Steven's abduction, the retelling of his story in the indelibly titled 1989 miniseries I Know My First Name Is Steven, and the unraveling of his older brother Cary Stayner, who's currently on death row.

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"The worst thing that could possibly happen, happens to them," Dimmock said. "And then they're the family of the perpetrator of the worst possible thing. It really made me think about shifting sympathies. Normally when I think about storylines in these categories, they tend to fall in binary categories, someone is either a hero or a villain. Those sorts of comparisons have been used a lot in these two brothers and I started to think, is it more complicated?"

Needless to say, nothing is so black and white, especially when there isn't a handy scenario to explain away any of it at all.

This story contains details from both cases...


What Happened to Steven Stayner?

Steven was 7 years old when Ervin Edward Murphy approached the second-grader on his way home from Charles Wright Elementary School on Dec. 4, 1972. Murphy had a stack of religious pamphlets and, explaining that he was collecting money for his church, offered the boy a lift home. Steven was persuaded to get into the car, where Kenneth Parnell was waiting.

An ex-con who had already spent three years in San Quentin for molesting an 8-year-old boy plus another six years in a Utah prison on armed robbery and grand larceny charges, Parnell told Steven that he was going to adopt him because his parents didn't want him anymore. He could be disarmingly paternal, but also beat and sexually abused the child.

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Parnell made Steven go by "Dennis Parnell," and as they moved from town to town in California he posed as the boy's father and enrolled him in school. Steven, his memory of his family fading under the strain of the trauma, took to calling Parnell "Dad" and went to class clean and neatly dressed, and otherwise showing no obvious outward traces of being held against his will.

A school friend recalled to 20/20 years later that the boy she knew as Dennis had "a great personality. He was spunky. You could see that he wanted to play and be with kids and be normal."

He even had a regular babysitter for awhile, a single mom named Barbara Mathias, who ended up moving in with them for nine months. She later insisted she had no idea that "Dennis" wasn't Parnell's real son, that he even had a birth certificate for the boy. He and her son Lloyd played together.


"I was really struck by the impact that Steven had in the years he was living as Dennis," series director Dimmock told E! of revisiting that unfathomable part of his childhood. "He assumed that identity because he [had to], you know, what would any of us do with that choice, and he was just a young kid. But to see that all of these people continued to think about him and remember him, and feel so much guilt for not knowing—although I don't know how any of them could have known—I think that was really impactful to see."

Even though missing fliers circulated all over the place, including some of the schools Steven attended, no one ever came forward to say they recognized him. 

Reminiscent of what happened when kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart was spotted in town nine months after she was taken in 2002, seemingly free to run but actually terrified of what her abductor might do to her, many would question why Steven didn't tell someone or otherwise try to escape.  

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Steven ultimately shared that Parnell had done a very good job convincing him that his family didn't miss him, pretending to talk to his mom on the phone in front of him to get permission to let him stay, and telling the boy a judge had awarded him custody.

As he got a little older, though, he realized that "things weren't right—my parents wouldn't have hired a guy to pick me off the street," Steven reflected. But by then he was too afraid of being physically harmed by Parnell to run away.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The sexual abuse also went on at night, until, as Steven remembered, Parnell told him he was getting too old and came home with Timothy White, the child's blond hair already dyed a darker shade. For this crime, Parnell had enlisted 14-year-old Randall Sean Poorman, offering him $50, marijuana and booze in exchange for helping him lure the 5-year-old to his car.

Parnell had also told this little boy that he was going to be his new dad because his parents didn't want him anymore.

"I couldn't see Timmy suffer," Steven later told Newsweek. "It was my do-or-die chance—and I also would be coming home for doing something positive."

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On March 1, 1980, the boys left the one-room cabin where Parnell was keeping them in the remote coastal town of Manchester (pop. 195 in 2010) in Mendocino County, Calif., and hitchhiked 40 miles to Ukiah. They approached a police station shortly after midnight.

Parnell, who was working as a night clerk at the Palace Hotel in Ukiah, was arrested within hours.


Steven Comes Home

According to a TIME magazine report from March 17, 1980, Steven hadn't yet fully divulged what really happened to him. Insisting to police that he "wasn't mistreated... the boy clearly has conflicting thoughts about his captor," the article notes. "Police say that Stayner seemed fond of Parnell, who he said 'spoiled' him...Stayner was defensive about Parnell in his talks with police and reluctant at first to reveal his name. Yet Stayner also said that he had no desire to see him again."

Parents Del and Kay, brother Cary and his three sisters welcomed him back into the fold, but readjusting wasn't easy—for any of them.

Talking remotely to Good Morning America on March 14, 1980, Steven, his mom and dad on either side of him, said it was "great" to be back, but his siblings had "changed a lot. I never recognized either one of them."


He returned to school, where he was always an object of curiosity. Once more details emerged about his ordeal, some kids teased him about being molested. He was at times eerily nonchalant about what happened to him and even took to making jokes about it himself. 

"He got on with his life," his sister Cory Stayner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But he was pretty messed up and he never got any counseling. My dad said he didn't need any."

Kay said in an interview, per CNN, "He came back different, very different. And we had a rough time getting used to having him home."

When GMA caught up with him in 1983, Steven described his first year back as "kinda hectic. For seven years I have been supposedly an only child. Now I had to compete with a brother and three sisters."

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He told Newsweek in 1984, "I returned almost a grown man and yet my parents saw me at first as their 7-year-old. After they stopped trying to teach me the fundamentals all over again, it got better. But why doesn't my dad hug me anymore? I guess seven years changed him, too."

He added, "Everything has changed. Sometimes I blame myself. I don't know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn't?"


Parnell was convicted first of kidnapping Timmy in June 1981, Steven telling The Evening News he was "glad" about the verdict and hadn't been worrying too much about the next trial, at which he'd be called to testify.


Parnell was subsequently found guilty of taking Steven as well—he wasn't charged with child sex abuse or any other molestation-related counts in either case—and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released after five.

Ervin Murphy, who aided in Steven's abduction but, according to Echolls' book, insisted that he really thought Parnell was a minister and never thought he'd hurt a little boy, was also convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap, and served two years of a five-year sentence.

Poorman, who had been a friend of the boy he thought was Parnell's son, Dennis, was convicted as a minor for Timothy White's abduction and spent time in a juvenile facility.

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Parnell died in 2008 in prison at the age of 76 while serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for solicitation to commit a crime, trying to buy a human being and attempted child-stealing. He had asked his home health care worker if she could help him procure a 4-year-old boy, offering to pay $500 to have him delivered to his house in Berkeley. 

She reported him to police and he got the maximum sentence due to California's three-strikes law.

Both Poorman and White testified for the prosecution at his 2004 trial. The Oakland Tribune reported that the two men, who hadn't seen each other since Parnell's 1981 trial, hugged and Poorman whispered an apology, to which White replied, "It's OK...I've got a good wife."

Hollywood Takes Notice

In the era of Lifetime movies shot while a suspect is still on trial and amid the boom of star-studded series tackling true crime and corporate chicanery before the dust has settled, the nine years between Steven's homecoming and the seminal miniseries about his case feels like a century.

No longer able to deal with his peers, feeling academically stunted and more prone to drinking and goofing off, Steven dropped out of school and started doing odd jobs. But in 1985, when he was 20, he married 17-year-old Jody Edmondson, and they had two children, Ashley and Steven Jr. 

Fatherhood seemed to rejuvenate him, and Steven started speaking out as a survivor, working with organizations that searched for missing children and visiting schools to talk to kids about safety.


All along, there was the assurance that his story would be made into a movie. And with the family's input, and based on source material from Mike Echolls' book of the same name, NBC's two-part I Know My First Name Is Steven still made quite the splash when it premiered on May 22, 1989.

The memorable title came from the police's first encounter with the teen, who was reluctant to talk, but said, "I know my first name is Steven. I think my last name is Stayner."

Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg called the production "an exception" to the usual "exercises in distortion and exploitation" that tended to characterize made-for-TV dramatizations of horrific crimes.

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Not that there wasn't some distortion.

Captive Audience also delves into the creative license taken during the making of the miniseries and the way in which the version of events that unfolded for an average of 35.8 million viewers over the course of two nights became the story that everyone knew.

"You've got this crazy story that happens, and then you've got kind of the 1980s version of that story that's presented to the world," Dimmock told E!. They found recordings of executives discussing proposed audience-friendly tweaks, and the Hulu series examines "both what really happened and also the way what really happened was digested and made into something with a Hollywood narrative."


Still, the family signed off on it, and Steven even had a nonspeaking cameo as one of the police officers who escort his TV self back home.

"I think it's so courageous for the family not only to let the story be told—it's very delicate and tragic—but also because they're using their real names," Cindy Pickett, who played Kay Stayner, told the Washington Post at the time. "They said, 'If we can bring one child home, it will be worth it.'"

While promoting the movie, Steven said of his own kids, "They don't go out unless I go with them or there's someone outside watching. If they're just out on the porch, the door is always open. As long as I can see them and hear their voices, I'm OK."

I Know My First Name Is Steven was nominated for a Golden Globe and four Emmys, including Outstanding Miniseries and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special for then 17-year-old Corin Nemec, thanks to his heart-wrenching turn as Steven. (There was some impressively stiff competition that year, so the best miniseries honor went to War and Remembrance, which also beat out Lonesome Dove.)

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A Terrible Ending

Barely four months after the series premiered, Steven, 24, was on his motorcycle heading home from work at a pizza shop on Sept. 16, 1989, when a car turned in front of him. He wasn't wearing a helmet and he was pronounced dead of a skull fracture at a nearby hospital. (The other driver, Anthony Loera, actually left the scene but ultimately turned himself in. He was sentenced to three months in jail for felony hit-and-run.)

"I'm very, very, very angry," his wife Jody, then 21, told a reporter for Knight Ridder that night. "I've never been this angry." 

Though the ready assumption was that Steven's sadly short life had been defined by his troubles, Jody said he'd been "a very happy man" of late, and they'd been living "a normal life with two beautiful kids."  

More than 450 people turned out for Steven's funeral and Timothy White, the boy he saved, was a pallbearer.

Yet in another perversely tragic twist of fate, White also died young, suffering a pulmonary embolism on April 1, 2010, when he was 35. He had been a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy for five years, according to the Press Democrat, and was survived by his wife and two children.

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Another Nightmare

But in July 1999, the name Stayner made headlines once again when Steven's older brother Cary was arrested for murdering a woman in Yosemite, Calif. The connection, once people realized it was indeed the same family, felt like a punch to the gut. 

And it got worse.

© ZUMA Press/

On July 24, hours after being charged with the murder of Joie Ruth Armstrong, a 26-year-old nature guide who was found decapitated two days beforehand in a densely wooded area of Yosemite just a few hundred feet from her home, Cary confessed in an off-camera jailhouse interview with San Francisco's KBWB-TV to also killing Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli Sund, 15, and the girl's friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, that past February. 

He had been working as a maintenance man and living at Yosemite's Cedar Lodge, where the trio were staying. They were last seen alive Feb. 15 eating dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Carole and Silvina's charred remains were found March 19 in the trunk of their burned-out rental car, which was abandoned along a utility road off the California 108 highway at the edge of the Sierra Foothills. Juli's body was discovered March 25 next to a reservoir about 30 miles away from the car with help from an anonymous letter to the FBI that Cary said he sent himself—but had someone else lick the stamp, so his DNA couldn't be traced.

"We thought we were prepared and, of course, we weren't," Carole's father, Francis Carrington, told the LA Times after his granddaughter was found. 

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Cary had been interviewed early on in the investigation—a massive undertaking involving local and federal authorities—and ruled out as a suspect. The FBI acknowledged at the end of March that, while they were looking closely at a few men who (unlike Cary) had criminal records, no arrests or charges were "imminent."

Police first linked him to Armstrong's July 21 murder when his vehicle was reported to be near her cabin an hour after she was known to already be dead. He agreed to let them search his truck but balked when they wanted to look in his backpack, wondering if Armstrong's head was inside.

It wasn't, but when Cary didn't show up for work the next day, authorities put out an APB and the FBI arrested him at a nudist colony in Wilton, Calif. (He was wearing shorts when agents found him sitting in the camp restaurant.)

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A Second Look at Cary Stayner's Childhood

"None of the women were sexually abused in any way," Cary told KBWB's Ted Rowlands, who goes over the surreal interview in Captive Audience, after admitting that he was guilty of all four murders. "I wish I could have controlled myself and not done what I did."

Rowlands reported that the then-37-year-old also said he had dreamed of killing women for 30 years and these four were "at the wrong place at the wrong time.''

That would have made Cary 7 when he first had such a fantasy, when Steven was 3 and still several years away from being kidnapped, a trauma that couldn't help but affect the whole family—and which certainly was invoked when it came time to mount a defense. 

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I Know My First Name Is Steven alludes to Cary, who was 18 when his brother reappeared, being jealous of all the attention Steven was getting, but there's no indication of him being seriously disturbed.

Count everyone affiliated with the movie, including Nemec and Todd Eric Andrews, who played Cary at 18, as being floored by what happened. Both actors reflect on the stranger-than-fiction chain of events in Captive Audience, as well as read Steven and Cary's own words from interview transcripts.

In hindsight, people who knew the Stayners started to remember the quiet, withdrawn boy living in the shadow of his brother—both when Steven was gone and when he returned—who was a creative, talented artist but also pulled his hair out in clumps and as he got older and had trouble forming relationships with women.

FBI agent Jeff Rinek, one of the agents who arrested Cary and then spent 90 minutes in the car with him driving to bureau headquarters in Sacramento, remembered to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002 how the suspect willingly talked about what happened to his brother. He also seemed angry at the driver who fatally crashed into him and ticked off by the light sentence given to Parnell, a free man at the time.

Cary pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison for killing Armstrong. However, prosecutors were intent on seeking the death penalty for the murders of Carole, Juli and Silvina; he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but was convicted on all charges in August 2002.

Both Del and Kay Stayner testified during the penalty phase of the trial that October that they neglected Cary to a degree when Steven went missing.

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"I didn't socialize with him," Del said. "I yelled at him a lot."

"My son is very sick right now," he added. "I don't think he should be executed because he's sick."

Kay told the jury of her surviving son, "Very seldom did he get into trouble. He was a good student, a good artist, and he was very loving...If his dying would bring these people back, I'd say do it. But executing him is not going to bring them back."

Sister Cynthia Sartell testified that their dad was "on a mission" after Steven disappeared, and looking for their brother consumed his time and energy, to the detriment of his other kids. 

"We were kind of on our own," she said. "We tried to keep quiet and not upset our parents."

Hearing about Cary's traumatic past or childhood issues didn't sway the jury, who recommended the death penalty, and a judge agreed. He remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison, though California hasn't executed a prisoner since 2006 and Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty while he's in office.

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Del Stayner passed away in 2013, but Kay and her grandchildren Steven Jr. and Ashley, who were only 2 and 3 when their father died and grew up knowing him primarily from Nemec's TV performance, sat down to talk for Captive Audience

Dimmock credited Ashley "and her really trusting in the weird process of going back over a story that ultimately has been told a lot of times, but digging some new things up and starting again," for helping the series come together with fresh insight from the family.

Looking beyond the good vs. bad brother trope, the director reflected on revisiting the divergent branches of the Stayner story in a way that doesn't allow for the audience to tidily point fingers.

How does it feel to be "brought through the experience of feeling a deep sympathy for a family, for a mother, and then to have a sudden left turn?" Dimmock explained. "How does that change the way we think about responsibility—and does it bring us into an uncomfortable place?"

All three episodes of Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story are streaming now on Hulu.

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